Josiah Martin: NC’s only floating governor

tryon palace

Great Britain had notable penchant for installing pompous, condescending asses as governors of their colonial possessions, and Josiah Martin, the last royal governor of North Carolina and the man who finished his term while ruling from a ship off the NC coast, appears to have been no exception.

Born in Dublin in 1737, he spent his early years in England and Ireland before traveling with his tutor to the West Indies in 1752 at age 15.

However, Martin did not care for the tropical climate in Antigua, and within a short time had made his way to London to study law, according to NCpedia, an online encyclopedia devoted to North Carolina.

In London, Martin benefitted from the influence of his older half-brother, Samuel, a member of Parliament, to gain favorable positions, and dropped a career in law for the military.

The nepotism paid off when Lord Hillsborough, the secretary of the colonies, was shuffling leadership posts in 1770, according to NCpedia.

North Carolina’s colonial governor William Tryon was transferred to New York to assume that colony’s governorship and Martin, though only 34, was named to succeed him in North Carolina.

North Carolina historical marker in Southport, NC.

North Carolina historical marker in Southport, NC.

Relations between the British and their American colonies were deteriorating all along the Atlantic Coast, so it’s not surprising that Martin inherited a passel of problems when he took over as colonial governor.

These included:

  • Hard feelings related to the War of the Regulation, a movement initiated by North Carolina backcountry residents who believed that royal government officials were charging them excessive fees, falsifying records and engaging in other misdeeds;
  • An ongoing boundary dispute with South Carolina; and
  • Controversy over colonists’ rights over non-resident debtors.

While Martin was able to calm some of the antipathy related to the Regulator Movement, his inflexible loyalty to the crown rankled many North Carolinians.

In 1773 the state legislature tacked onto the court law bill a foreign attachment clause, “permitting colonists to recover debts owed by non-residents who owned property in North Carolina,” according to NCpedia.

Martin, however, vetoed the bill because the attachment clause was unfavorable to the crown. The end result was that they colony was left without a court system, for which the colonists placed blame on royal officials.

Relations between Martin and his subjects deteriorated. The First Provincial Congress was convened in New Bern, NC, in 1774, and it was recommended that counties form committees of safety, a move to supplant royal authority.

Martin reacted by sending his family to New York, and he himself fled under cover of darkness on this date in 1775 from the royal palace in New Bern to nearby Fort Johnston, in what is today Southport, NC.

With an aristocrat’s sneer, he described the fort, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, as “a wretched little place,” according to the blog This Day in North Carolina History.

He stayed in Southport until he learned of a plot to take the fort, when he moved his headquarters offshore to the war sloop HMS Cruizer.

American patriots would eventually destroyed Fort Johnston.

The Cruizer would remain Martin’s headquarters through the summer and fall.

From aboard the ship, on Aug. 8, he issued a proclamation denouncing the safety committees, according to This Day in North Carolina History, a project of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

Martin’s career ended on a sour note. He stayed in New York with his family during the first half of the American Revolution, during which time his wife died and all his property in North Carolina was sold.

Late in the war, still optimistic that he could regain his royal post, he joined Lord Cornwallis to try to rally loyalist troops in North Carolina.

According to an 1850 work by 19th century American history Benson J. Lossing, Martin fought under Cornwallis in the 1780 Battle of Camden in which the British defeated Patriot forces.

Lossing wrote that Martin stayed with Cornwallis in South Carolina as late as April 1781, when impaired health caused him to leave for England.

Martin died in 1786 and is buried at St. George’s Parish Church in London.

(Top: A sketch of the original Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC, where Josiah Martin lived while governer from 1771-75.)

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